Taking care of your older horse during winter
Our domestic horses tend to do pretty well in life. In the modern day, most now enjoy long and fulfilling lives. However, as your horse ages, some things are important to keep in mind, to make sure they are as comfortable as possible, particularly in the colder winter months. Although it can vary from horse to horse, older horses are generally classified as being older than 15 years of age. In this article, we will discuss how to get your older horse ready for winter, and how to keep them as fit and healthy as possible through the coldest season.
Pre-winter veterinary check
Just like getting your car serviced before winter, your older horse can benefit immensely from a veterinary check before winter. We can carry out a health examination of your horse, which will usually involve listening (called auscultating) to your horse’s heart and lungs, checking their joints (especially leg joints), and assessing your horse’s body condition score. An ideal body condition score is usually around 2.5-3 out of 5 for most horses. Having an adequate amount of fat coverage is vital to help keep your horse warm in the winter, but it is important to make sure that they don’t have too much fat either! Your vet will be able to advise on what dietary changes your horse may benefit from to get them to their ideal body weight before winter.
Our vets may also recommend a blood test to check your horse's kidney, liver, and hormone function. This can be valuable to allow the identification of hormonal conditions that older horses are particularly prone to, such as Cushing’s Disease. For further information on Cushing's Disease click here.
If your horse is diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease, they may need a special daily medication called Pergolide to manage the condition. They may also need dietary adjustments to help support their immune system throughout the colder months, such as vitamin supplementation.
Importantly, we can also help identify any joint conditions your horse may be suffering from, such as osteoarthritis. Just like in us humans, conditions such as arthritis tend to be exacerbated in the colder months. We will always be happy to advise whether your horse may benefit from anti-inflammatory drugs and/or joint support supplements to keep them comfortable.
A dental examination is another important part of a pre-winter veterinary health check. Unlike in humans, a horse’s teeth grow continuously throughout their lifetime. If they are not maintained with regular rasping (also called floating), they can develop sharp edges and hooks which can be extremely painful for your horse. Ensuring your horse’s teeth are checked and in good condition will allow them to chew their food properly. This in turn will ensure they are getting maximum nutrition from their diet and help them to maintain a healthy body condition score throughout wintertime.
How else can I help my older horse through the winter?
Most older horses will benefit from extra rugging up in the colder months. However, it is well worth considering which type of rug to choose. As many older horses have at least some degree of arthritis, any extra weight on their joints can cause significant discomfort for them. There are also lots of little fat elderly ponies who, as long as they have shelter from the wind and wet, really don’t need a rug – this weather is what they were bred for!
When choosing a rug, it is worth looking at the tog rating and weight. Just like our own duvets, many rug brands offer lightweight but very warm rugs, which will help keep your older horse comfortable through the coldest months. Keeping your horse warm with a good quality waterproof rug if they are kept outdoors, or a warm stable rug if housed indoors, will help support them through the winter months. A warm horse can use the calories from their diet to maintain a good body condition score, rather than burning them to generate heat! A neck extension piece on the rug is also recommended to help conserve heat. Remove the rug daily to check for pressure sores and/or any signs of chafing.
Stable bandages can be used if your horse is housed indoors at nighttime. These conserve warmth, help support joints, and offer additional padding to the leg joints when your horse is lying down.
In addition to rugs and stable bandages, the type of bedding your older horse has in their stable can have a massive positive impact on their comfort in the wintertime. Rubber matting helps cushion and insulate from the cold of a concrete floor and, if well maintained, can last for many years. A deep bed of shavings or straw with well-banked sides will encourage your horse to lie down and rest in the night.
Remember too the impact of air quality in the stable – while well-banked beds are widely believed to prevent casting, the evidence for this is very weak, and the banks are often breeding grounds for moulds and spores which can exacerbate lung problems.
Shoeing and hoof care
Your horse may not need a full set of shoes in the winter, especially if they are at rest during the colder months. It is still recommended to have your horse’s hooves checked and rasped every 4-6 weeks. Your farrier will assess your horse and give recommendations on how best to keep their hooves in good condition over the winter. Overgrown hooves can lead to additional strain on your horse’s joints, tendons, and ligaments because the angle of the foot is altered. Imagine how uncomfortable we humans would feel wearing high heels 24/7!
It is also vital to pick out your horse’s feet daily. Not only is this important to ensure no sharp stones are causing them discomfort, but it is also important to prevent your horse from developing a fungal infection, called thrush, in their feet.
Preventing mud fever (also called cracked heels or pastern dermatitis)
Mud fever is the bane of many horse owners’ lives in the winter months! It is a bacterial condition that affects the lower parts of horses' legs. The usual culprit is a bacteria called Dermatophilus congolensis. This can often be found on the skin of healthy horses and cause them no harm. However, if the skin has constant exposure to wet, muddy conditions, there can be a breakdown in the skin’s barrier to infection, allowing these bacteria to take hold and multiply. This can then lead to sore, cracked heels and pastern areas. Older horses are more likely to suffer from conditions that secondarily weaken their immune systems (such as Cushing's Disease) which can make it more challenging to treat mud fever. Horses with long feathers are also at increased risk of mites, which damage the skin, encouraging infection.
If possible, bring your horse into a stable or shelter, allow their legs to completely dry off, and then thoroughly brush off the mud from their hair and skin. Avoid washing their legs and feet excessively, as this can often make the condition worse. If your horse is suffering from mud fever, seek veterinary advice as soon as possible to avoid secondary conditions such as cellulitis (inflammation and/or infection of the subcutaneous connective tissue) from occurring.
As horses have very delicate digestive systems, any dietary changes must be introduced gradually. It is also recommended to discuss with your vet before making any major changes to your horse’s diet to avoid them developing potentially life-threatening conditions such as colic.
Many older horses cannot utilise energy from their food as well as younger horses can, so easily digestible foods are often recommended for them. Sugar beet (which always must be soaked properly before use) can be very beneficial as a source of easily digestible energy in older horses.
A tip to encourage movement in older horses - leaving your horse’s hay in several smaller piles around their stable can help get them moving around in the night and help with their mobility. Low-hung hay nets/racks are preferable to high-placed ones, as these are easier for your older horse to feed from, particularly if they are starting to develop or have arthritis.
Our older horses massively benefit from some extra TLC and attention in the winter months. Proactive veterinary care can reap many benefits for your older horse's health, including ensuring their teeth, joints, and other body systems are all well maintained to allow them to stay in good condition throughout the cold months. This then brings many benefits for your older horse's long-term comfort and welfare. Good preparation well ahead of winter is a very sound investment to make!